Pendleton County, West Virginia, is home to 540 farms. The average farm in the county has a net income of around $45,000 a year. On either coast, that’s not an impressive income, but those farms are important to Pendleton County, where the median household income is $30,429.
Arlington County, Virginia, just blocks from the nation’s capital, is one of the richest counties in the nation, with a median household income of $94,876, and a median family income just over $127,000. Two thousand, one hundred employees of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) call Arlington County home.
At least some of those EPA employees have been thinking about farms in Pendleton County. The county is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and, consequently, in the crosshairs of a massive and detailed EPA blueprint to alter the waters of the bay. The plan, an outgrowth of an executive order President Obama signed shortly after taking office, divides the Chesapeake watershed into thousands of small areas and prescribes pollution abatement goals for each of those areas.
These goals, or total maximum daily loads (TMDL), will give EPA total control over land use throughout the six states and the District of Columbia that make up the Chesapeake Watershed. For farmers in Pendleton County, the effects will be immediate and drastic. Or, to quote from a brief the county and several other nearby counties filed in the Third Circuit Court: “It is anticipated that a significant amount of Pendleton county farmland will have to be removed from production due to its proximity to waterways and the resulting impact of the Bay TMDL on local land use.”
Here Come the Federal Puddle Police
The American Farm Bureau filed suit against the EPA, arguing that its Chesapeake Bay plan exceeded the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Third District Court found against AFB, and the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court. If the highest court in the land agrees to hear the appeal, they’ll surely do so with more than a little frustration, as environmental agencies have lost three times in similar Supreme Court cases since 2001. The highest court has consistently reminded the agencies that the Clean Water Act is not a grant of federal control over every stream and depression in the nation.
As the Supreme Court is surely tired of pointing out, there are restraints on the federal government in the CWA. It leaves a large amount of room for a state role in environmental regulation. In fact, the act makes that “cooperative federalism” explicit, to whit: “primary responsibilities and rights of States to prevent, reduce, and eliminate pollution, to plan the development and use (including restoration, preservation, and enhancement) of land and water resources….”
In direct contradiction to the plain language of the CWA, the EPA blueprint envisions almost no role for the states involved, setting pollution limits for thousands of individual areas in the watershed. According to the plaintiffs: “As a practical matter, the power to set numeric limits for sediment and nutrients by source type within specific geographic areas equals nothing short of the power to allow farming here, but not there, building here, but not there.”
We’re Doing Fine Without Your Interference
According to a 2014 report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the bay’s water quality has improved 40 percent since the early 1980s. That’s a testament to the ability of states to carry out the responsibilities the CWA lays out. Due to their efforts, the bay’s water quality is better than it has been since the 1940s.
The EPA’s plan is unnecessary and prohibitively expensive, forbidding the flexibility needed to economically reach the environmental goals everyone in this controversy shares. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently commissioned a study that found flexibility in meeting those goals could, when compared to the EPA blueprint, reduce costs 73 percent in Pennsylvania and well over 80 percent in Delaware, New York, Maryland, and West Virginia.
It surely must have come to the notice of the few federal regulators still capable of irony that residents of one of the richest counties in the nation are threatening the livelihood of farmers in one of the poorest counties in the nation. The proposed federal mandates for Pendleton County and the thousands of other areas the EPA blueprint covers would mean fewer acres farmed and a direct hit on farmers’ ability to make a living.
The Obama administration has spent much time and energy focusing on the problem of income inequality. One way of addressing the problem would be to work for common-sense local solutions to environmental problems, not a diktat from high-dollar Washington experts that ignores the rights of states and small farmers alike.